Were I of a cynical mind, I might suggest that the show is in dire straits when a great man of history story that proclaims the future to belong to a white guy and suggests that it’s good to be a billionaire stands out as a relative highlight of the season. Except we all know that the show is in embarrassing shape, with a showrunner who continues to struggle with the notion of aboutness in narrative. Why take an episode whose sins all fall under the heading of “basically the same shit the program does in all its celebrity historicals” and complain about that when it breaks a five episode streak of the show breaking down in far more fundamental ways?
All of which is to say that “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” is pretty good, which is to say that it has the basics down in a way nothing since “It Takes You Away” has really come close to. There’s a refreshing sense of conceptual unity—the conflict between Tesla and Edison, where Tesla is a visionary inventor and Edison a more cynically pragmatic and business-oriented sort, is mirrored by the technological scavenger villains. There’s a sense of actually getting the guns on the mantleplace to go off—Wardenclyffe is introduced early on, then becomes a cool location for a last stand. Tesla’s message from Mars (a real historical detail) is brought up, then made use of. And the basic ideas are just fun. Tesla is an obvious choice of historical figures for Doctor Who to do—an opportunity to do a big steampunk romp that matches well with Whittaker’s more “get her hands dirty working on stuff” character, at least when they remember to have that be a trait.
There are oddities, but most of them aren’t the fault of this script. Even in the hands of a competent writer, three companions turns out to simply be too many to make work in a fifty minute episode when you also have to introduce a bespoke world. Nobody is well-served here, and it mostly feels like you could give different scenes to different people with no real substantive changes to the episode. The cast is unwieldy and everyone is suffering from it. There’s also a bizarre lack of consistency to the Doctor’s characterization as her pacifism goes out the window in order to have her revel in the potential destruction of an alien race. Guns remain bad, but giant lightning-shooting towers are great. But this is largely a good change to the character, whose passivity and lack of willingness to confront evil has been a major problem. Sure, it’s weird to see copyright infringement be the hill upon which she’ll kill, but the fact remains that this is Whittaker’s most (forgive me) electrifying villain confrontation yet.
In the end, though, the cynicism is inescapable. This is a daft celebrity historical romp. It’s the best story of the season to date, but that just means that this is a season where the daft historical romps are the standout highlights. That’s bad and depressing. And it’s ultimately not as though the ambient context of semi-competent drudgery actually improves this. I mean, I’ll probably get a better Eruditorum post out of it than anything around it, but this is still little more than a competently done iteration of what is usually one of Doctor Who’s most tediously obligatory subgenres. (It’s notable that Moffat quietly junked the format during the Capaldi era.) That’s worth celebrating, but it really shouldn’t be.
- The guest cast in this is quite strong. Goran Višnjić’s Nikola Tesla is basically just a Robert Downey Jr, impression, which is a choice that’s obvious because it works, and he carries it off with the requisite charisma. Robert Glennister’s Thomas Edison is emphatically a piece of shit, meanwhile, which is, to be fair, a relatively satisfying note for the show to take with a Great Man of History.
- For my money, however, the standout is Anjli Mohindra as Queen Skithra. Mohindra, previously best known within Doctor Who as Rani on Sarah Jane Adventures, launches a full-on attack on the scenery that, along with the delightful decision to have the Skithra be rubbish at chasing people because they keep tripping over each other, single-handedly elevate the Skithra above any Chibnall-era monster since the P’ting.
- There seems to have been a decision to give Bradley Walsh a larger helping of lame comedic bits. This is mostly unfortunate, although his desperately incompetent attempt at explaining who Tesla was is rescued by Cole and Gill’s amused exasperation at his efforts.
- I’m terribly excited for Prisoner of the Judoon, although the news that Chibnall rewrote his best writer from last season is a bit wince-inducing.
- That said, schedule for the next two weeks will be a bit odd. I’m flying to the UK for a vacation on Sunday (I would love to see you, but alas unless we’ve already made plans my six days there are fully booked)—the first time I’ve been there since I was writing about the Key to Time saga. (Amusingly, it will be the second time I return home to immediately write about The Invasion.) Anyway, if my hotel TV has a nice, sensible way for me to pull up the previous day’s episode of Doctor Who then I’ll watch it Monday to stave off the jet lag. If it doesn’t, then I won’t be able to watch it until I get home the week of the 2nd, and that week will just contain two reviews. Either way, I’ll have no way of watching Praxeus until Monday. Other than that, however, posting will continue apace whilst I’m abroad.
- Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror
- Orphan 55